Friday, July 20, 2007

The Battersea Swan

Tuesday July 17, 2007:
The sunny summer evening was sticky with undischarged rain. We wove our way down the Buckingham Palace Road, dodging between wandering tourists and scurrying commuters as we headed for Chelsea Bridge, the river and Battersea Park. Had he lived, this would have been my father’s 85th birthday. AS it was, it was six months to the day since he died – proving that even in his dying, he was neat and precise, as he had been in life.

A damp west wind buffeted our cheeks as we drew closer to the river. Soon the teaming streets gave way to quieter thoroughfares, flanked by up market flats. Dodging across a series of complicated crossings we safely reached the bridge.

Here, the wind was fiercer. Low evening sunshine licked at our cheeks. Beneath our feet, the river gurgled quietly as it made its way to the sea.

I was coming home. This was the neighbourhood of my father’s family. We past the power station and turned into Battersea Park. The London traffic receded into a dull distant hum soaked up by the great plane trees standing on either side of the path, like an honour guard.

I was a small child again. I remembered a throng of people, all pressing forward to see the glorious Easter Parade. It had looked so great on the television. Huge horses decked in flowers, shining carriages and mad hats, all hidden to me then behind the sea of backs and legs. Even when hoisted to my father’s shoulders, I could see little, but that was more about my poor vision than any tangible obstructions.

We walked along the plane grove beside the river. Panting joggers shot past, daft dogs scurried after tossed balls. The park was busy but peaceful.

At the base of a great old plane tree, we sat in the pool of sun. I stroked the swan’s feather I had brought with me and we offered seeds for the land and our journey.

I began to speak …

“I journey to walk my father through all his ages.” I repeated three times.

In the twilight, the swan glides, shimmering white before me. She wants me to climb onto her back and so I do. Off we glide across the softly flowing river.

The water is dark. The stars are out in the midnight blue sky. On either side of us, the river bank buildings loom up, the amber street lights splash orange against the darker shadows. All is still.

A small boy, his fair hair tousled and untidy stands, flanked by two adults. By the look of them, they are trying to hide mirth behind severe disapproval. The little boy looks up with that crooked grin, his determined little chin jutting defiantly. In one hand, he holds an enormous spanner. Unseen by all involved, I watch my father argue robustly with his elders about why he should be allowed to dismantle some object that has taken his fancy.

The child walks through the streets, untidy and slightly grubby in a small-boy way, he is purposeful as he makes his way to school. In the classroom, he is attentive. A clever boy with a neat hand, he loves words. He dives in amongst them and paints with them what he wants his world to be. He wins prizes.

Back at home his mother sews. There is no money and so he must go out to work. At fourteen, a messenger boy or junior clerk, he shoulders the responsibility to bring in money.

I watch him as he works. I can see into his mind, see the dreams of writing - of doing something better than this.

War comes. He is a young man now and he has to fight. He doesn’t want to but the consequences of not doing so, for a working class lad like him, are too terrible.

I am with him as he makes his decision. He doesn’t believe in war as a solution. But Hitler must be stopped so he joins up.

This handsome young man, now calling himself Jack, looks dashing in his uniform. I see the man beneath the khaki, flinch at the thought of fighting, and then se him set his shoulders.

I sit in the cramped cab of the tank with him. I smell his fear; see the sweat trickling down inside his collar. Expertly, he drives the tank, confidently manoeuvring it. Inside he is scared, he is so scared. He doesn’t want to fight. He thinks it’s wrong but he has to.

The other young men around him are gung ho. Does their bravado hide similar emotions? He joins in. I watch as he mocks the great David statue in Rome, standing clad only in swimming trunks, mirroring the pose, grinning crookedly and knowingly at the camera.

And I follow him; I follow him all through the Italian campaign and beyond. I follow him on the day he is demobbed and returns home. I watch his face as he sees the devastation wrought by the bombs, the jagged holes where once a house was, the filth and decay amongst the rubble. His neighbourhood is torn apart by war; poverty and grief are etched on the faces of the community.

Eventually, he gets a job. Most inappropriately he becomes a postman, even though mornings are hard for him. I follow him as he makes his way sleepily through the unfamiliar streets and I ride on the thoughts that soon come to the surface, of a return to education.

Not for him the leisured days of university. Rather, he must fit in his studying after work. He goes to evening class.

I sit in the classroom with him and see the small boy inside the man, absorbed, face still, as he writes. I watch the other students noticing him, and one in particular, a tall, big boned handsome young woman with untidy brown hair, feasting her eyes on him. I see her determination to know him and knowing him to have him all to herself, to make a life with him. And in time, despite his resistance, that is what happens.

Oh but they are poor, my mother and father. London has been flattened by the Luftwaffe and there is nowhere to live. They find cramp rooms upstairs in a house where my father argues with the landlord and is kicked down the stairs for his pains.


I sit in the corner and watch their lives unfold. My mother bears a child and then a second. Bored, for she too is a clever woman with ambitions abandoned in order to pursue her handsome Jack, she eats and grows fat.

He knows he is caught. There is no way out. He passes exams which prove his talent but still he trudges upon the treadmill of the dull working day. He grows angry inside, bitter because the dream is lost. His anger sours his mood and they argue. They trade bitter words, fuelled by disappointment and poverty. There are reconciliations, twins are born. But they return to argue and the children cry.

Life moves on. My mother makes the best of her opportunities and moves on career wise. I sit with the serpent of jealousy and anger in the Brest of my father, fulminating with rage for he has to work, work, and work. Acidly, he lashes out with his tongue. My mother eats, growing a layer of fat to protect her from the sharpness of his tongue. But it doesn’t work. It hurts. It hurts them both and I watch their grief as I watch the children standing at the top of the stairs at night, listening and crying.

My father laughs with his friends and is happy Jack outside the house. Then he comes home to a house where he cooks the meals. I see my younger self arguing with him. I see his love for me and my adult self weeps inside with the shame.

He sits with my sixteen year old younger self and reads to me, for I can no longer do this. My adult self notices for the first time the love he has for the words of Bronte and Joyce and how he loses himself in their poetry. As he reads, his own words dance in and out, the secret poetry of his mind that goes everywhere with him.

I see his boredom and frustration. When my younger self has left home and broken the ties, he retreats into neatness and inner dreams. But the constant litany of deprivation paraded before him at work, fuels a small fire inside. A fire that burns with the injustice of it all. HE sees the gulf between the haves and the have knots and is incandescent with rage. It is time to get involved. It is time to fight back!

He joins the labour party, becomes active locally, and gets on the list to stand as a local councillor. I sit at the back of meetings and hear him speak. Such eloquence but such rage. An old man now, he marches with me on the Stop the Clause March. He stands at the bottom of the stage whilst I address the thousands of protesters. He is shining with pride for me, his daughter. My adult self sees this and again weeps for shame, because I didn’t notice before.

He retires to the country. The dreams of freedom to write are gone. He’s too sour and angry. Cruelly, he lashes out at my mother and twin brother, the two members of the family who have been his constant support. I watch the pain that all feel and wriggle inside myself, as more shame unfurls.

Hiding inside his pain, he caves in upon himself. He slows and then stops eating. He knows that to do this inflicts terrible torture on my mother, who battles to control her weight. Cruelly, he pushes away the food she prepares.

I see him day after day, sitting slumped, bent almost double, at the kitchen table, too weak to hold himself up. He is skeletal. His skin stretches over the fine bone structure of his handsome head, the silver grey hair moulded to his scull. Determinedly, doggedly he starves himself, taunting my mother for her inability to control her eating by his abstinence. I want to ask him. “What do you want? Do you want to starve yourself to death?” But I am afraid of the answer. Yet I sit unseen and watch him fade before my eyes.

Thin and frail, he lies in a hospital bed. I watch myself shifting uneasily next to him. I watch at last as inside me I see the spark of compassion and inside him, a recognition that I, his beloved daughter is there at last for him.

I see myself get up to go. His eyes watch my back as I part the curtains. “Goodbye Daughter” he says quietly.

And there he is, laid out neat and confined by the sheets tucked tightly in. Silver hair flowing around his head on the pillow like a halo. He looks innocent, peaceful and angelic, as he never was in life. I stand and watch him as he drifts off, as he disappears down that dark tunnel to another place.

The swan feels soft beneath my hands. She sits quiet and patient. I have seen enough. Slowly we move back down the river, gliding on its rippling surface. We float past the tall dark buildings, amber edged and mysterious, under the star filled sky, riding back to the sunset on a warm July evening.

The sun has moved round. The slim tree in front throws a dark shadow over me. I am stiff and cold. I shift my weight to release my left leg from its pins and needles.

Quietly, my companion talks of how she saw her own father, also called jack, following mine. Not interfering, just there being watchful, following my father as he moves on. He is not alone now.

Nearby, a young man laughs and talks with his friends of going off to KFC. It is time to move. We get up and make our way to the river’s edge and stand in the red glow of the setting sun as the river flows gently beneath our feet. I toss some seeds towards the water but they don’t get there. “Happy Birthday Daddy” I whisper to the silent river.

In time we make our way out of the park. We cross the river and walk back through the quiet streets of Chelsea, back to the chaos that is Victoria and the world.

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